Zen Talk: “Great Transcendent Wisdom” Teaches of Emptiness and Impermanence

The classic Buddhist work on Great Transcendent Wisdom teaches:

“All things are subject to causes and conditions, none are independent….All are born from causes and conditions, and because of this they have no intrinsic nature of their own. Because of having no intrinsic nature, they are ultimately empty. Not clinging to them because they are ultimately empty is called transcendent wisdom.”

I really love this concept.

Now, none of us are about to go off in the woods and become ascetics, unattached to our possessions and lives. Is this to say that none of us will achieve transcendent wisdom? Well, yes, probably, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something for us to learn from these words.

They’re about our attachment to material objects and the world around us. We become so attached to our things, to crap, to objects, and cars and houses and trinkets and nonsense and so many things that we don’t need that they prevents us – not only, according to this passage from transcendent wisdom and enlightenment – but from, in the meantime, living life.

People forgo so much for the crap they have. They worry about losing it and worry when it’s lost. They spend time and energy and money protecting crap (not that I blame them – I’ve had my home broken into and I know how much it sucks) and consequently don’t enjoy the finer things in life. People don’t travel and see new things because there’s too much to attend to at home, and they don’t live life because they’d rather sit amongst their crap. Many people don’t experience the fun and excitement of moving to a new city or country because they’ve accumulated too much stuff and wouldn’t know how to get it there and don’t want to lose it. The ability to pick up and go is a wonderful thing.

It’s not that these lifestyles aren’t understandable – liking our crap, that is. After all, I like crap. It’s just that we sometimes need the reminder that it is just stuff and there’s more to life than the stuff. When we see that nothing has intrinsic value we’ll see the value in everything.

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Zen Talk: Dogen’s “The Issue at Hand” Waxes about Being As Is

“Kindling becomes ash, and cannot become kindling again. However, we should not see the ash as after and the kindling as before. Know that kindling abides in the normative state of kindling, and though it has a before and after, the realms of before and after are disconnected. Ash, in the normative state of ash, has before and after. Just as that kindling, after having become ash, does not again become kindling, so after dying a person does not become alive again. This being the case, not saying that life becomes death is an established custom in Buddhism – therefore it is called unborn. That death does not become life is an established teaching of the Buddha; therefore we say imperishable. Life is an individual temporal state, death is an individual temporal state. It is like winter and spring – we don’t think winter becomes spring, we don’t say spring becomes summer.”

These words from Dogen’s Shobogenzo essay, “The Issue at Hand,” reassure me not only about the nature of time but also about the nature of life and death. The notion of individual temporal states removes the usual power that the idea of death has.

I have never been particularly scared of death. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to die and when confronted with the prospect of immediate death I am scared. However, the actual idea of death, which is to say, no longer being a part of this life on earth, doesn’t upset me. I am not scared of death as an unknown. Perhaps it’s this lack of apprehension regarding death that has never made me feel the need to pursue religions that insist on making me feel better about what happens after we die, with notions of Heaven and Hell, salvation, etc.

Those ideas are all meant to fill a need: to comfort people and their fears about the great unknown, death. For instance, Christianity is a very ‘other-worldly’ religion. That is, this life is about guaranteeing salvation and a ticket into Heaven and eventually about being resurrected back into life. These concepts are all central to the purpose of Christianity and are meant to address a very basic and understandable human fear about death. The purpose of Christian ritual and belief, then, is aimed primarily at seeing these things through – in a manner of speaking, at preventing, or beating, death.

On the other hand is the Buddhist approach above. Life and death are both individual temporal states: they are times, or periods, and they each have an equal value as such. We are not meant to prize life and cling to it obsessively, insisting that it is all that matters. Yes, life should be valued, no doubt, but we should also embrace its fleeting nature, seeing existence not as our conscious self in time but as ourselves among everything else as existence.

Did you read this week’s essay? Did you enjoy it? What do you think about when you read the quoted section above? What is your philosophy about life and death?

I have spoken in brief about a fraction of a concept in part of a paragraph in this essay. I recommend you read “The Issue at Hand” in Dogen’s Shobogenzo to begin getting the full effect. Then read it again. I read it three times before anything started to register.

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